Windows Phone 7: A groundbreaking interface ships on great new phones

We take a close look at Microsoft's new mobile OS as deployed on the Samsung Focus and the HTC Surround.

Good writers borrow, great writers steal, or so the saying goes. Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7 (WP7) operating system borrows heavily from Apple's iOS and Google's Android but then takes the interface and navigation in an intriguing new direction, offering a user experience that at least equals and in some ways surpasses them.

Yet WP7 is very much a work in progress; adopting it out of the gate requires something of the same leap of faith that the first iPhone or Android buyers took. Certainly, there's no expectation at launch that the application marketplace for Windows Phone will be anything like robust, and -- beautiful as it is -- the software doesn't always provide a smooth experience.

WP7-equipped phones are on sale now in Europe. On Nov. 8, three WP7 phones from AT&T -- the Samsung Focus, the LG Quantum and the HTC Surround -- will be available in the U.S., followed shortly by the HTC HD7 and the Dell Venue Pro from T-Mobile.

I was able to take a long look at Microsoft's new operating system on two of the upcoming phones: the Focus and the Surround.

Forget what you know

The first thing you'll see when you fire up a WP7 phone is an interface that will knock your socks off. It's immediately apparent that Microsoft achieved at least three design goals:

1. Forget that Windows Mobile ever existed. Start with a clean sheet of paper.

2. Make a phone that is at least as tied to the cloud with Microsoft tools as anything Google could ever do.

3. Build an interface that's impossible to look at without getting information.

It's that third point that makes WP7 truly different from other phones. Where other smartphones use small icons that, aside from status badges, are pretty much static, Microsoft's large icons, which it calls tiles, are either in motion or tell you something substantive.

An iPhone screen displays a 4-by-5 grid of 57-by-57-pixel icons, some with badges, all with captions. In contrast, WP7 tiles come in two sizes. The smaller is a roughly 3/4-in. square -- only two will fit across a phone's screen. The larger icon is the same height and roughly twice as wide, nearly filling the width of the screen.

Those tiles are more than large enough to describe the information they lead to, are impossible to mis-tap and are easy for grown-ups to see, even with their glasses off. For example, tiles for e-mail accounts show the name of the account and the number of unread messages. The double-wide Calendar tile shows your next appointment.

Windows Phone 7
The tiles on the Start screen are more than large enough to describe the information they lead to.

Tiles don't have to be for applications, either; tiles for people or your Facebook feed are in constant motion, showing a photo on a contact tile or a mosaic of Facebook profile pictures. Tap a person tile, and you'll see a not just a list of phone numbers and e-mail addresses, but actual verbs: "call mobile," "text mobile," "map home address," "send e-mail."

The tiles can be slid around the screen, with the shimmy and tap familiar to iPhone users. Applications not on the Start page can be found by flicking the display to the left, revealing a long list of apps on significantly smaller icons. Any of them can be pinned to the Start page, where the icons become tiles.

When you wake a WP7 phone from sleep, the splash screen shows the time, the day and date, your next appointment, and the number of unread e-mails. Slide upwards to get to the Start page.

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